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Drunk Driving Offenses and Penalties

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Notice: Please note that if you have been charged with a drunk driving offense, you will benefit from consulting a criminal defense lawyer. For information about what you should do after an arrest for drunk driving, please see this associated article. If you wish to hire a defense lawyer, you may find this article on "How To Hire A Lawyer" to be helpful.

What Constitutes "Drunk Driving"?

Drunk driving occurs when a person is driving an automobile, after consuming alcoholic beverages to the extent that his ability to drive a motor vehicle is impaired. Drunk driving can be called by a number of different names or abbreviations, depending upon what state you are in. Common names are "Driving While Impaired" (DWI), "Driving Under the Influence" (DUI), or "Operating a motor vehicle while Under the Influence of intoxicating Liquor" (OUIL).

Can I Be Charged With Drunk Driving, Even If My Driving Is Perfect?

Yes. Many people charged with drunk driving protest that their driving was fine. They believe either that the officer made up an excuse to pull them over, or that the "mistake" that the officer observed was appropriate or had nothing to do with their driving.

Each state imposes a maximum permissible blood alcohol contect (BAC) for drivers, and you can be considered legally "drunk" even if you do not feel that you are in any way affected by the alcohol you consumed. The "legal limit" for blood alcohol is normally 0.08%, although drunk driving charges are often possible based upon your driving conduct even at a lower BAC.

Additionally, you may be stopped because there is a mechanical problem with your motor vehicle. If the officer finds you to appear intoxicated (usual signs: slurred speech, glassy or bloodshot eyes, poor balance, conspicuous odor of alcohol, lack of coordination, difficulty comprehending instructions, clumsiness or lack of coordination, combativeness, and disorientation), he may investigate further.

What Do They Mean By "Per Se" In A Criminal Charge?

Most states allow conviction for drunk driving based solely upon a driver's blood alcohol content. This is called a "per se" offense. Sometimes, you will be charged both two counts of "drunk driving" (DUI, DWI, or OUIL) - for example, you may be charged with one count of "DUI" and one count of "DUI per se." These alternatives allow the police to argue first that your driving was materially impaired by your alcohol use, and second, even if it was not, that you are guilty solely on the basis of your blood alcohol content. A few states allow conviction for both charges, but you will only be punished for one offense.

A "per se" offense can only be charged if your blood alcohol content is known.

Can I Represent Myself Against Drunk Driving Charges?

Generally speaking, it is not a good idea to try to represent yourself against any criminal charges. Drunk driving may seem like a relatively minor offense, but it is in fact one of the more complicated criminal charges for prosecutors to bring. There are many technical defenses that an attorney may be able to raise, to assist you either in avoiding conviction, negotiating a lesser charge, or in reducing the consequences of conviction.

What Are The Penalties For Drunk Driving?

The punishments vary significantly from state to state. All drunk driving offenses carry potential jail sentences. However, most first offenders are given lesser punishments, such as driver's license restrictions, fines, mandatory attendance of drunk driver's education classes, mandatory attendance of "Alcoholics Anonymous" meetings or alcohol counseling, community service, or probation. Please note that some jurisdictions sentence all drunk drivers to jail, although the term may be very short (e.g., one weekend) for a first offender. Sometimes, a drunk driver will be required to install an "ignition interlock" device on his car, requiring him to pass a "breath test" in order to start the ignition. Some states will immobilize or impound the drunk driver's car. Some drunk drivers also have a breath testing device installed in their homes, and have to submit to random tests on that device when called by their probation officers. Some states have forfeiture statutes, which may allow them to take away your car as the result of a drunk driving conviction. Some states will impose higher sentences on people who, for example, are driving drunk while transporting children, whose blood alcohol content is exceptionally high, or who were driving in a particularly reckless or dangerous manner while impaired. Habitual drunk drivers face more severe sanctions, such as driver's license revocation, incarceration, and larger fines. It is common for people to be sentenced to jail for a second drunk driving conviction. Some states impose very serious penalties on habitual drunk drivers. For example, in Michigan, the crime of "OUIL 3rd" is a felony offense, punishable by up to five years incarceration.

What If I Injure Or Kill Someone While Driving Drunk?

This is a very real possibility - drunk drivers cause a lot of accidents. Many states make it a felony offense to cause a serious bodily injury as the result of a drunk driving accident. Many states also have specific felony statutes for "drunk driving causing death" - where, if the state can prove that the driver's intoxication was the cause of an accident, the driver can face a very long prison term. Drunk driving causing death can also result in manslaughter or "second degree murder" prosecution.

If you injure or kill somebody, you will also most likely be sued by that person or his family. You should note that damages you cause to people as a result of drunkenness are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. You should also be aware that some states will not allow you to have a driver's license until you satisfy (i.e., pay off) a judgment against you, for injuries you cause in an automobile accident.